10 min read
The case for movie-length, narrative video games
Has the time come for more movie-length, story-driven games? Three short-format game developers talk with Gamasutra about the secret to selling condensed titles to players used to 40-hour experiences.
There's a generation of gamers that many developers and publishers have forgotten -- those players who first picked up their controllers 20 to 30 years ago, who no longer have the time or patience for today's epic, protracted RPGs or even 10-hour blockbusters, but who would still be interested in interactive, story-driven experiences. At least that's the case argued by Ovosonico founder Massimo Guarini, who believes an entire generation of gamers has gone underserved by an industry that's stuck "trying to appeal to a specific demographic, the immortal 15 to 20-years-old demographic." "[The gamers who were playing] Mario 20 years ago or Donkey Kong 30 years ago, they don't have the same amount of time anymore," he tells Gamasutra. "They have kids. They have jobs. They come home in the evening, they're tired, and they have to manage their lives in a totally different way than a 15 to 20-year-old kid. "When you are in that situation, and when you sit down on the couch after dinner with your family, if you're given the choice between a movie and you know that's going to be over in two hours and that's it, or a game and you never know when the game is going to be finished and how much effort is going to be required from you, it's obvious. We're basically lazy, right, so you're going to choose the movie." Social and mobile game developers offer an alternative with games that can be played for just minutes at a time, but Guarini says there are few options for those who want something in between those disparate experiences, who want a satisfying story-driven game they can consume in an afternoon. That's why, after leaving Grasshopper Manufacture where he directed cult shooter Shadows of the Damned, he wants to now create a movie-length game at his new studio in Milan. His hope is to make something for that forgotten generation, for players with little free time and a preference for games about more than "trivial subjects like space marines." This void of short narrative-focused titles is one we've seen filled by more and more independent developers lately, like Thatgamecompany's powerful Journey and Plastic's psychedelic PSN experiment Datura, but are gamers really clamoring for these condensed releases?
Trailer for Dear EstherPinchbeck isn't alone in the quantity versus quality debate when it comes to game length -- Gary Whitta, movie screenwriter (The Book of Eli) and story consultant on Telltale's excellent episodic game The Walking Dead, complains that most of the content in mega-sized games is filler. He also champions the idea of creating short "digestible" experiences that won't scare away gamers with limited leisure time. "If you put a kind of massive, massive man versus food plate in front of me, that to me like is Skyrim," says Whitta, continuing the food analogy. "I'm like, 'Oh my god. How am I going to get all the way through this?' What I'm looking for is just a nice plate of food. Just the right portion." "That's a nice way to look at it, kind of portion control in gaming -- just finding that right amount of food on your plate where you feel like you've had just enough, where you feel full, you feel satisfied. You don't have that experience where you're like, 'Oh my god. Just because I needed to clear that plate, I ended up feeling kind of sick with how much I ate.'"
Ovosonico's Massimo GuariniGuarini thinks the pricing for games on these download platforms is also going a long way in acclimating users to shorter but cheaper games. He comments, "You can actually lower the price since you don't have the cost of goods, which is basically what brings the price up when you go retail. If you sell a two-hour game for $60, it's not going to work obviously." "You need to be competitive with similar forms of entertainment," the Ovosonico head adds. "Like movies on Blu-ray, it's like, what, $15, $20? So, that's about the price range that it's worth, I think, for a two-hour game format." (That's a bit more expensive than Dear Esther, which sells for $10, or the $5 episodes of Walking Dead, though it's in line with Journey's pricing.) Asking consumers to pay that much for a short game, though, can put more pressure on developers to deliver a game that's engaging all the way through. "I think maybe for some people it feels like more of a risk to pay less for a shorter game," notes Pinchbeck. "If you pay $60 for a 40-hour game, it's likely that at least some of those 40 hours will be good. If you are paying $10 for three hours, all three hours have got to be brilliant." At the same time, there's a danger in discounting games too much just because they're shorter, devaluing them to the point where consumers believe that their time in a game is only worth $1 an hour -- you might end up with games that only put in $1 per hour's worth of effort. "Games like Dear Esther require a heavy investment in assets to get the production quality up," says Pinchbeck. "If we were limited to an App Store price-point for the game, there's no way we'd have invested in next-gen visuals. It's the normal contract - we want you to invest in our innovation, and we have to supply an experience that supports that investment. If you only want to invest peanuts, you can't complain if developers design to that budget."
Telltale's The Walking DeadGame makers that manage to master pacing in a film-style title, keeping players absorbed all the way to the end, can also enjoy a reward most directors behind today's triple-A releases don't get: the satisfaction of knowing their audience is more likely to experience their entire production as it was intended (without interruptions) and appreciate what they tried to accomplish with their story.